The final social issue relevant to our discussion of liberal values in society is whether pornography out to be legally permitted. Studies have shown that there is a statistically significant correlation between misogynistic pornography and violence against women. Viewing pornography is not a part of most peoples’ idea of the good life, and there is a strong, harm-based argument against allowing pornography.
Let’s briefly sketch how the liberal argument against pornography might go. If pornography is causally implicated in acts of violence against women, by the harm principle we can prohibit it. Viewing pornography is an autonomous action, but its also not a very high value liberty. Thus, preventing harm outweighs the low-value liberty, and we can ban pornography.
There are two worries with this argument. First, it is an open question whether pornography is a significant causal factor in acts of violence against women. Lots of people view pornography, but are not violent. Further, proponents of a right to pornography will argue that it is individuals, not pornography, who are responsible for violence against women. There is a parallel here to arguments in favor of drug legalization. In both cases, we are criminalizing the activity because of latent consequences that are not clearly caused by the activity.
The other worry with the above argument is the objection that because sexual autonomy is a high-value liberty, and because neutrality requires us to be open to different conceptions of the good life, we have to allow for people to express their sexual autonomy through viewing pornography. In this instance, there is a parallel to gun ownership. Self-defense is a high-value liberty, and if gun ownership is a productive way to express that liberty, we cannot prohibit gun ownership just because some guns cause harm. Banning either guns or pornography requires banning a relevant means to expressing a high-value liberty.
Issues about the legality of pornography are often couched under the guise of a free speech issue. However, the possibility of significant harm that is caused by pornography makes it a relevant concern for a liberal society that adheres to the harm principle. There are strong liberal arguments on both sides of this issue. The causal question is not easily answered. Further, it’s not clear how we resolve whether something being a means to a high-value liberty makes the means a high-value liberty. One might argue that this is not the case, and that even the possibility of harm is sufficient to ban certain means to high-value liberties, especially when there are other viable means for achieving them.
In our next, and final installment of the liberalism and social issues series, we will make an effort to offer some degree of resolution on these issues. Consistency will obviously require some difficult allowances, and maintaining a liberal system of political values may require that we break from our everyday moral intuitions regarding what sorts of activities we think we ought to permit.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.